Only two things keep you turning pages between gulps of Pepto: First, in Leibovich’s hands, this state of affairs is not just depressing, it’s also kind of funny. Second, you want to know whether the author thinks anyone in Washington — anyone at all? — is worthy of redemption.
(Are you in This Town? Read the unauthorized index here.)
Leibovich, chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine and a former reporter at The Washington Post (where we overlapped briefly but never met), is a master of the political profile, with his subjects revealing themselves in the most unflattering light. That talent becomes something of a crutch in “This Town,” which offers more a collection of profiles and scenes than a rich narrative. Still, his characters reveal essential archetypes of Washington power.
First, there is longtime NBC news reporter Andrea Mitchell — a conflict of interest in human form. Married to former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Mitchell has specialized in covering administrations and campaigns that “overlapped considerably with her social and personal habitat,” as Leibovich puts it.
There are those weekend getaways at George Shultz’s home. And dinner with Tipper and Al. And that surprise 50th-birthday party for Condi. And what do you do when you’re reporting on the 2008 financial crisis and many people are pointing at your husband as a chief culprit? NBC tossed up a fig leaf: allowing Mitchell to cover the politics of dealing with the financial crisis, but not the conditions that gave rise to it. Such hair-splitting becomes inevitable, Leibovich writes, because Mitchell trying to avoid conflicts of interest is “like an owl trying to avoid trees.”
Next up is superlawyer Bob Barnett — if he doesn’t represent you, you must not be worth representing. He negotiated Hillary Clinton’s $8 million book advance (not to mention the $10 million he reeled in for Bill), plus eight-figure deals for Sarah Palin in book, speaking and television gigs. “The degree to which so many elite D.C. players stream to a single superlawyer cash redemption center is striking,” Leibovich notes, “even by the parochial standards of the ant colony.”
Yet, for all his antique cuff links, Barnett longs for the very thing he delivers for his clients: a reputation upgrade. “He hates being called an ‘agent,’ ” Leibovich explains, “with its hired-gun connotations.” Barnett’s desire to be considered a Washington wise man is evident in his desperate quest to join President Obama’s presidential debate prep team. When he finally broke in, before Obama’s last debate with Mitt Romney, he prefaced one of his suggestions to the president by explaining the “conventional wisdom” on an issue. Obama cracked, “Bob, you ARE the conventional wisdom.”
Tammy Haddad — “a human ladle in the local self-celebration buffet” — is another only-in-Washington personality, and embodies one of Leibovich’s rules for success here: If no one’s sure exactly what you do, you’re doing it right.
“My job is to be around the most successful people, the most up-and-coming people, and the people who have impact,” Haddad told Leibovich. A former producer for “Larry King Live” and “Hardball,” Haddad is a mix of journalist, businesswoman, philanthropist and, as Leibovich puts it, a “full-service gatherer of friends of different persuasions unified by the fact that they in some way ‘matter.’ ”
She’ll tote around a video camera (the Tam Cam!) and do ambush interviews of Washington notables. She’ll broker an Obama interview for a news weekly aboard Air Force One. And although she’s best known for her exclusive party marking the White House Correspondents’ Dinner every April, Haddad will fete you whether you want it or not — “party rape,” as the friend of one victim called it.
Haddad, no surprise, was well aware of “This Town” as a work in progress, and Leibovich shoehorns in passages of her and others discussing it. “He’s writing a book about how Washington works and trying to get me to participate,” the Tamster confides to Gordon Brown at a book party (presumably consensual) for the former British prime minister.
Stoked by Politico, speculation has centered on who will be mentioned and what scores might be settled. For this reason, “This Town” contains no index; bold-face Washingtonians can’t just find their pages, see how they’re depicted, and read no more. These sorts of readers are the people Leibovich refers to as Leading Thinkers , Political Washington, People Who Run Your Country. (Yes, Leibovich is fond of Ironic Capitalizations Implying the Banality of Things Others Consider Important; sometimes phrases are not only ironically capitalized but ironically italicized as well, which I will always think of as a Double Leibo.)
Here’s how some Leading Thinkers came out: In “This Town,” we’re told that Chris Matthews and Matt Lauer have joked that David Gregory would rub out a few colleagues to advance his career. That Bill and Hillary Clinton are convinced that Tim Russert disliked them, and that they’re not wrong.That Harry Reid has “observed privately to colleagues” that John Kerry has no friends.That West Wing types suspected Valerie Jarrett had “earpiece envy” after David Axelrod got Secret Service protection, and so arranged the same for herself. And that when a national security official suggested that Obama shouldn’t skip the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner on the weekend of the Osama bin Laden raid because the media might get suspicious, Hillary Clinton looked up and issued her verdict: “[Expletive] the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”
It’s all quite fun but, beyond Washington, will many people care? I suspect most Americans can make it through their days without knowing what Tammy Haddad is up to. And Leibovich notes that, outside of “Game Change” and Bob Woodward tomes, political books like this one rarely achieve commercial success. “This Town” is as insidery as “Game Change,” but with lower stakes, and it lacks the historical import of Woodward’s deep dives into the White House. But it’s not trying to be a book for the ages — it’s a book for the moment, and it captures it well.
That moment begins with stories of frantic networking at Russert’s memorial service at the Kennedy Center in June 2008, and ends with Leibovich’s musings on Inauguration Day 2013. Other than the calendar, there is no clear arc to the tale, and by the 2012 campaign, “This Town” has lost some steam. If there is an underlying theme, one that Leibovich returns to between parties, it is Team Obama’s transformation from an above-it-all, apolitical wonkfest, at least in self-perception, into just another administration, where conflicts of interest are rife, lobbyists proliferate and outgoing staffers quickly sell out (although no one in Washington sells out anymore; they monetize their government service).
Leibovich recalls Obama’s attacks on lobbyists during the 2008 campaign, including the promise to keep them out of the White House. “It’s not who we are,” top aides intoned.
But it is who they became. In a near-parody of Washington’s revolving door, administration honchos joined up with some of the biggest corporate villains of recent years. Leibovich highlights the “unholy triplet”: Pentagon spokesman (and George W. Bush holdover) Geoff Morrell became BP’s head of U.S. communications , Treasury counselor Jake Siewert started spinning for Goldman Sachs, and OMB director Peter Orszag cashed in at Citigroup. (Morrell’s deal was negotiated by Barnett. Obviously.) And whenever lobbyists joined the administration, the White House would just “acknowledge the exception, wait out the indignant blog posts and press releases, and move on,” Leibovich writes. “That lobbying ban was so four years ago anyway.”
This disdain for hypocrisy hints at the only semi-redeeming quality Leibovich finds in Washington. It’s not full-on honesty — no one measures up — but a degree of self-awareness that you’re playing a game, and not pretending otherwise.
So he shows sympathy for Kurt Bardella, an insecure, insufferable Republican congressional press aide who passes Leibovich copies of his e-mails. “I loved the sheer unabashedness, even jubilance, of Kurt’s networking and ladder climbing and determination,” Leibovich writes. The rise, fall and rise again of Bardella in Rep. Darrell Issa’s office is among the most gripping portions of “This Town.”
A politician-turned-lobbyist such as Trent Lott also earns respect, in part because he doesn’t hide his motivations. “Washington is where the money is,” the former Republican majority leader told Leibovich. “That’s generally what keeps people here.” But Leibovich is scathing with Chris Dodd, who vowed he’d never lobby, right up until the former senator became head of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Leibovich is not all that kind to his colleagues in the Washington press corps, either, lamenting their coziness with authority and obsession with self-branding. Politico — “the emerging company-town organ for Political Washington” — comes in for grief as a trafficker of minutiae and suggestive notions as a means of “driving the conversation.” And Leibovich depicts Politico’s Mike Allen, of Playbook fame, as an “enabler” of journalistic groupthink and the media-political complex.
This broad media attack feels dissonant at a time when the Obama administration is targeting leakers, seizing journalists’ phone records or labeling them “co-conspirators,” and when news organizations are publishing details of top-secret government surveillance programs. Leibovich’s digs seem relevant to a certain kind of Washington journalist — the frenetic political blogger, perhaps — but soirees at Tammy’s don’t seem to be easing the antagonism between the White House and the fourth estate.
Even Leibovich’s critique of Politico, while persuasive, feels familiar. (I mean, didn’t he read that great Leibovich profile of Allen in the New York Times magazine in 2010?) Politico may have recognized the limits of a “winning the morning” strategy, recently announcing a push into long-form journalism.
One suggestion to Politico’s editors is to assign a revelatory Leibovich-style profile of Mark Leibovich, and answer the question that hovers over every page of his book: Is it really possible to be the impartial critic of a subculture that is also your own?
Too bad Leibovich can’t write that piece. That would probably be a conflict of interest, and we can’t have that. Not in this town.
Carlos Lozada is editor of The Washington Post’s Outlook section.